Has it been only 100 days since Barack Obama took the oath of office? Actually, it's only been 98, but sometimes 100 days feels like more than 100 days. This is one of those times. Obama's first 100 days have been among the most eventful in history.
So how's it going?
According to the American people, pretty damn good. Not only does 69 percent of the public approve of the job Obama is doing, but last week, for the first time since January 2004, more Americans felt the country is headed in the right direction than in the wrong direction (48 percent to 44 percent). Remarkably, this "right direction" number has been steadily rising even as the economy has been steadily falling.
In his Grant Park acceptance speech on election night, the newly elected president warned that "the road ahead will be long," and "our climb will be steep." But his poll numbers are a vindication of the idea that, with the right leadership, Americans are mature enough to heed those words and not expect immediate results.
So any list of the most impressive achievements of Obama's first 100 days should start with the intangible qualities of transformational leadership --- from the president's personal equanimity (which Robert Reich described as "the serene center of the cyclone -- exuding calm when most Americans are petrified") to his masterful use of the bully pulpit.
In just his first 100 days, Obama has had almost as many prime time press conferences as George Bush did in his entire first term. And it's not just press conferences. Obama's willingness to speak directly to the American people -- in town halls around the country, on YouTube, on Leno, on ESPN, etc -- and to engage with them by answering questions online and reading ten letters a day from the public, is a powerful reminder that the White House isn't a privatized bubble or underground bunker off limits to the people.
He's also offered tone setters that are a useful reminder that the president is more than just the country's chief executive -- that he and the First Lady are also potentially the country's chief teachers. They've already taught the country a lot of lessons -- about what we eat and how we eat by planting an organic vegetable garden at the White House, and about commitment to family through their relationship with their daughters and by having the First Granny move into the White House to help Sasha and Malia settle into their new lives.
Now to the more tangible aspects of his presidency. Let's start with the pluses:
- The stimulus package. It wasn't big or bold enough, and it suffered from the malodorous scent of Eau de Congressional Business as Usual, but the speed and focus with which it was passed showed how serious Obama was about pulling America out of its economic free-fall. And how competent his team was at hitting the ground running. Plus, it taught the new president an important lesson about the limits of bipartisanship for the sake of bipartisanship.
- Passing and signing the national service bill. Not so long ago, a call for sacrifice meant asking people to go shopping or take a trip to Disney World. Creating a system in which more people can feel as if they're true stakeholders in their communities will not only produce physical benefits -- it will help repair America's moral infrastructure as well. And their answering of the call will be additional proof that Americans have been waiting for a leader to ask more of them.
- Reversing course on stem cells. It was a clear statement about the return of the reality-based world. As Obama put it when he signed the order "It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda, and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology."
- A progressive budget. Healthcare, provisions to tackle rising economic inequality, a more rational defense budget, tax cuts for all but the very wealthy -- as David Leonhardt of the New York Times wrote, Obama's budget is "nothing less than an attempt to end a three-decade era of economic policy dominated by the ideas of Ronald Reagan and his supporters."
- Foreign Relations. From granting his first presidential interview to Al-Arabiya TV to loosening the embargo on Cuba to hanging an open sign on the State Department, Obama has signaled that the bellicose days of antagonism as our default foreign policy position are over. And his decision to close Guantanamo also sent the right message to the world.
- The rescue of Captain Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama. Blowing away fears of a sea-faring Black Hawk Down, Obama's restrained behind-the-scenes handling of the volatile hostage situation demonstrated that the new commander-in-chief is not afraid to pull the trigger when an American life is on the line. Bonus points for causing the Limbaugh-Hannity worldview about Democrats being nothing but bleeding hearts to shift on its axis.
A solid run of pluses. Now for the minuses:
- The bank bailout. In his appointments at almost every agency, Obama has demonstrated a desire to receive a wide range of opinion. But the exception is a doozy: at Treasury, the range of opinion goes all the way from Goldman to Sachs. Several hundred billion dollars later, the banks still aren't lending, the zombies are still on their feet, preferred shareholders are still being catered to, the knowledge of where our money has gone is spotty at best, and oversight and transparency remain unfulfilled promises. The Obama White House's vision for the rescue remains startlingly myopic. The result is the continued funneling of hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to the very people who got us into the mess we are in -- with very little accountability demanded in return. The biggest black mark on Obama's first 100 days is his head-scratching reliance on the bank-centric beliefs of Larry Summers and Tim Geithner.
- Afghanistan. Obama has committed 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan but as many, including Obama himself, have noted, there is no exclusively military solution to Afghanistan. What's more, unlike with Guantanamo, Obama has adopted Bush's policies regarding the enemy prisoners being held at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan.
- Torture accountability. Obama has said he wants to look forward and not back, and it's reasonable for him to not want his agenda sidetracked by torture commissions and investigations. But the way we respond to the revelations about the Bush administration's use of torture isn't merely a question of policy; it a question of morality. The minute the president starts framing the issue as a matter of right vs wrong, his choices will be clear. Because if there is one thing Obama cannot afford to abandon it's the moral high ground. And he can trust the American public to walk and chew gum at the same time -- to be able to support a national health care plan, a new energy plan, the reforming of our education system, and at the same time support accountability for those who undercut our fundamental values.
- Sensible gun control. Despite a recent run of deadly gun rampages and an appeal from the president of Mexico, whose country is paying a heavy price for bought-in-America guns, Obama has chosen the path of political expediency and turned his back on his campaign promise to reinstate a ban on assault weapons.
For the last eight years, we suffered from the soft bigotry of low presidential expectations. Taken as a whole, Obama's first 100 days have been an inspiring change from a White House that expected as little from us as it did from itself.
The road ahead is indeed going to be long and steep. But at least we're on the right road.